I was sitting up at the edge of the bed reading the beginning of Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch. Sofia was standing at the window, naked, waiting for the rain. I put the open book face down on the warm gray percale sheets on my lap. Against the soft light that came through the window, I could see the lines rise and fall gracefully to define Sofia’s silhouette. From where I was, it seemed as if her youth and form were permanent, unconcerned with the fatality of time.
Outside, the dark, unraining clouds were moving, shifting shapes. It made Sofia mad and restless. She returned to bed and curled into a ball like a sad child. I drew the sheets over her, she cowered, and I withdrew the sheets and returned to Cortazar.
“Baby, can you stop reading?” she said in a voice muffled with pain.
I put the book on the nightstand and silence filled the room. At that precise moment we heard the cat mew in the room next door. Sofia put her palms to her ears to no avail. Then she took a pillow and held it tightly over her face.
I got out of bed and went to the kitchen. “I’m making coffee. Do you want a cup?” I asked.
“No, Baby,” she replied, “I want this cat to stop and the rain to come.”
I made coffee. The cat mewed. The rain didn’t come. When I came out of the kitchen, I found her sitting up in bed, the pillow next to her, the sheets pulled over her legs, her round young breasts in full rebellion against gravity, her cold shoulders resting against the madras headboard. She was staring at the empty vase on the table under the mirror across the room. She was dangerously beautiful and still and quiet. Whenever she sat like that, legs stretched out in front of her, shoulders rigidly aligned, hair cascading down her shoulders, chin slightly hanging, catching fistful of the wrinkled sheets, she was free falling into the abyss of her melancholy where the world was a mesh of entangled yarn, as she had once described it.
I stood in that awkward space between the kitchen and the bedroom. I watched the steam rising from my coffee in the porcelain cup, and thought of my mother. When she was young she was beautiful and depressed. Most of the times, she would walk about the house slowly, her face impassive, her shoulders heavy as if she were carrying the weight of the world. Sometimes while she peeled potatoes, or mended our clothes, or squatted out in the courtyard kneading my father’s oily work clothes in a big washbasin until her knuckles became pink in the dark gray water, she would sigh so helplessly as though there were an unceasing flame burning inside her. And I would sit by the window whispering a prayer I half knew, asking God to give her the courage to cry. On rare occasions, she would suddenly burst into bright tears that would quietly roll down her cheeks. Then she would wipe her raw face on her forearms, take a deep breath and say, “My heart is empty now.”
I had told that story to Sofia. I climbed into bed next to her, took a sip of my coffee and put the warm porcelain next to Hopsctoch on the nightstand. I ran a playful finger over her shoulder, and found her feet with my feet under the sheets. “Do you want to cry?” I asked her.
“I can’t. I want the rain to come,” she said. “And Baby, do something about this cat!”
The cat belonged to an old poet who lived by himself. It was a big, white fluffy cat unlike her owner who in his archaic outfit seemed to be shrinking imperceptibly ever since his wife had died next to him in bed in her sleep. Before his wife’s death and after publishing numerous collections of poetry and not getting the recognition he thought he deserved, the poet had turned to writing poems on small squares of graph paper which he then folded in the shapes of birds and animals; harmless objects like daggers, marriage rings, women’s shoes, and pillows, and in an act of revenge, he left them in public areas across the city for strangers to find and read. So while he was out, the cat mewed.
I went to the window to see about the rain, then I went out into the hallway to see about the cat. The cat mewed. The rain didn’t come.
Back in bed, I sipped my coffee, and she kicked the sheets, stomped out of bed and into the living room. At times like that, the smallest things irritated her: the way I breathed with my mouth open, the gulping sound my throat made when drinking coffee, the empty vase on the table under the mirror, the warm scent of cloves in the black tea I made in the afternoons, or how I dipped a finger in the boiling broth to make sure the salt was right.
Now, I sat alone in silence in the big unmade bed with the empty vase and the clean mirror in the room. I drank the coffee and looked out the window, trying to remember the last time Sofia had smiled.
When Sofia was happy—which was not often—she would erupt with uncontrollable energy. On those rare occasions she would become full of wanting, full of insatiable desire for food, for strong alcohol, for sex, for poetry, for fresh air and clean windows. She could sit for hours with a cigarette burning in between her fingers, with or without a glass of neat bourbon or wine in front of her, and talk and listen, crossing and uncrossing her legs, tossing her hair from one shoulder to the other, smiling, playing with her earringless earlobes, scratching her firm calves from over the tight denims or loose cotton slacks, laughing her little laughter, tapping on her thighs with her free hand, and moving the tip of a finger over the scuffs on her leather boots, or following the outline of her beautiful feet when they were bare.
Then there were times, like now, that she was restless and waited for things that didn’t come. She wanted silence, and before long the silence would begin to fill her up so terribly that she would feel the shadows of death descending upon her from heavens. Then she would breathe heavily and loudly, and listen to the rhythm of her own breathing as if to remind herself that she still existed. She would sit. She would get up. She would go to the window, to the bathroom, in front of the mirror in the bedroom, to the kitchen, and sometimes she would open the door and peek into the hallway, naked.
I often wondered about the multitude of worlds existing inside her head. I thought of that fierce audacity with which she showed the bookseller her nails, and walked up to a stranger with a sense of innate superiority over men. One night while the aftermath of ephemeral pleasure still glowed in the dark room, I asked her. Between brittle small laughter that was closer to an expression of hopelessness than joy, she said that there was a stage of sadness in which she became unthinkingly bold: she could walk for hours without direction, without the burden of thought, without feeling fatigue. She could make difficult decisions instantaneously. She could chew chewing gum in public, and blow big bubbles that popped loudly. She could, she said, sing out loud while sitting by herself by a window in a crowded bar, watching people go about their lives out on the street. She could walk up to all types of men at all hours, unafraid, and ask them for trivial things: a half-smoked cigarette, directions to the nearest outdoor spot where she could pee; if their mothers looked like their names; sometimes, she said, she asked them to pull up their pants so she could see their socks.
Sofia and I met in a used bookshop in the west end of Toronto. I had been going there to find out of print books, or rare first editions that I loved to pick up and feel the jackets, the aging, crisp yellow pages, and allow myself to be lost in the smell and glory of time.
The owner was a respectable short man in his sixties. He had curious green eyes vivid with tears, a thin, white mustache, and an undisturbed tranquility stemming from the magical wisdom of millions of words on the shelves. He was always careful and in control of himself with a smile that never revealed his teeth. On his round, reddish face, beside the gladness, one could see he had seen the world. He had an incorrigible sense of dignity and a vintage King Seiko watch with untreated camel skin straps. Beneath the shelves of books behind the counter, visible over the gray ceramic cat with whiskers of gold and beautiful bulging eyes, there was his small high-end whisky collection. His bottles, his unstarched cotton shirts, his lived-in blue denim pants, the neat leather loafers, the tastefully decorated and warmly lighted interiors, the many small fictile vases of green plants demonstrated his appreciation for life.
That day I was looking for Witold Gombrowicz’s Pornographia and Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch. But there I found Sofia. She was wearing a white turtleneck sweater, and a long knitted seaweed cardigan with big pockets. On the brown leather tub chair across from the bookseller, she was sitting comfortably, her arms resting on the armrests, her legs crossed over. Through the dark gray stretch denims, I could feel the youthful lust in her shapely legs. And there was something about the black military boots that made her unconquerable. She was smoking a thin cigarette while listening to the bookseller, who spoke with a worrying puerility as he reached for the fat whisky decanter and laughed loudly and refilled her glass before he did his.
In a small unglazed earthenware on the table were fresh, ripe, dark plums. The bookseller nodded at me and returned his gaze first to the bowl of fruit then to Sofia. I felt an unhurried contempt toward him for I found the modest nod, which he gave with his freshly shaved chin, unusually clumsy and impersonal. The white, normally dignified mustache looked numb and trembled embarrassingly above his dry lips. They were talking about nails: the shape, the color, the texture, the hardness. Sofia put the burning cigarette in between her lips that were very dark, a lipstick blacker than volcanic ash; she uncrossed her legs, leaned over the coffee table, brought forward her beautiful hands, her elbows now resting on her thighs, the back of her hands parallel to the floor, and she tucked her fingers and thumbs as if to study them herself with eyes narrowed by the ascending silver curls of tobacco smoke. The bookseller sat his whisky glass down on the table, and leaned forward over the plums to see what Sofia was showing him. Then, unashamedly, he stretched his hands in front of him, and showed her his nails and smiled, revealing his teeth. She said that his nails were strong and healthy, that hers grew brittle if she wasn’t near the ocean. Then she eased in her chair and went back to smoking her cigarette, and the white mustache above the pale trembling old lips rested, and young legs thick with irresistibility of youth crossed over, and I couldn’t see anything anymore on the shelves, but books with immaculate, dark gray jackets that called to me, and from between the unopened pages, I could feel the unstoppable force of destructive beauty rise.
She got up and walked toward me. My heart suddenly became strange in my chest as if it didn’t belong there.
“What are you looking for, Mister?” she asked as she ran her hands through her long, wavy hair that was the color of Persian dates with a texture of fine, windblown sand. “You have been standing here for God knows how long,” she said. I could feel the warmth of bourbon and the thinness of tobacco on her sweet breath.
“Hopscotch,” I said and felt ashamed to say the name of Gombrowitcz’s book as though the immediate eroticism in the title of the work was uncommonly in conflict with the chastity of her untouched beauty.
The loose floorboards creaked under our feet, and she asked, “Do you read Spanish?”
“Hopscotch. He wrote it in Spanish,” she said. “Cortazar.”
“I’m looking for an English translation actually,” I said, not knowing where to look.
“Don’t bother then, Mister. Any translation would be an insult to the man’s genius,” she said, and the boards under our feet creaked again, and the bookseller emerged from the basement with the book.
She gave the bookseller a firm hug and placed a harmless kiss on his cheek. “Farewell, Mister,” she said to me with a telling smile as she collected her bag.
We watched her lovely silhouette leave. Then the bookseller took the bowl of plums from the coffee table, and went behind the counter. When he handed me the book, I noticed his hands were shaking; he was pale. While I put the book in my bag, the bookseller did something that kept replaying in mind all evening. He picked a plum and sunk his old, decaying teeth into the fresh, tight flesh of the dark fruit. There was a helplessness in the way he ate the plum as if he were biting to assuage the longing for a time in his life when that boundless energy, that relentless innocence, that lasting lust didn’t feel so close yet so unimaginably out of reach. In those days of unending youth filled with possibilities, I assumed, for the bookseller nails weren’t a subject to be studied with trembling lips and shy white mustache, but were mere elements of pleasure, used to torment, to poke, to tease, to please, to hungrily scratch hard smooth skin in between folds of cotton sheets, drenched in unmindful young sweat.
One evening before the knock came on the door, before we were in bed making love, we were in the living room listening to the sound of falling rain outside in between the poet’s cat’s mewing. We were drinking wine. I told her where I grew up and how I lived through a civil war, and some darker days. Darker than the war days, she asked. And I told her of a peaceful sunny summer day, when between two halves of a soccer match, a man cut the throat of his son’s murderer in front of twenty thousand spectators, and then the match resumed as if no atrocity had been committed. She looked at the immature wine inside the embossed bronze bowel and her eyebrows become contemplative. Then in a matter of minutes I knew everything about her. Her father, a dignified postman, went insane, or at least that is what the town’s people said, after her mother fell in love with a mere boy so young that he could be her son. It was not just that people talked, he found his love and trust betrayed by the one woman he worshiped. He smoked and cried in the darkness of the nights until the fishermen went to the sea, and he sat out on the porch and waited for the sun to rise. “His loneliness was so vast that the whole world could fit in and there would still be room,” she said, “I didn’t know how to help him. I was too young.”
There was silence.
Sofia was sitting on the floor against the wall under the open window with her knees raised to her breasts, still peering inside the bronze bowl. She was wearing an oversized turmeric-colored knitted sweater and gray faded denims and woolen socks. I was sitting across from her leaning against the sofa with the porcelain teacup from which I drank wine.
Then we decided to talk about something else and we talked about the bookseller, but the stream of pain ran smoothly into the new exchange.
“Don’t be silly, Baby. We just talked about my nails,” she said and looked at her nails.
“You sit there full of promise. You hug him and kiss him and show him what is possible!”
“Why is that wrong?”
“Those possibilities are beyond him,” I said with a hardness in my voice, and sipped my wine. “He knows it and he suffers,” I continued, and the wine tasted terrible. She saw the grimace on my face and laughed wholeheartedly. And I laughed halfheartedly.
Then we were serious again.
“At his age, men become increasingly lonely and desire company,” she said, “I sit and listen to him talk about his youth, his travels, his books, his nails, and the woman who was his wife for thirty-two years until she started searching for God in the distant mountains.”
“Why does it have to be you?”
“Because I want to. Because I think it is right. Or maybe because I like men, and I like to find those who are lost,” she said and looked at me with a mischievous smile.
“Do you think I’m lost?”
“You were, in the bookstore,” she said, the smile still shining bright in her eyes, “and I’m glad I found you.” She finished her wine, raised herself on her knees, and through the open window she inhaled the fresh fragrance of rain in the dark.
“That day when you left,” I said after a long pause, “I saw his hands shake, his face was pale. And how he ate that plum. He seemed to be in great pain.”
“His pain would be any less if I hadn’t sat with him?” she asked in a cold confident tone.
Then came the knock on the door and I went to answer. It was the poet.
The first time we met the poet was one early morning in a rather unceremonious circumstance. It was spring and a soft rain had begun to fall in that fragile hour before dawn after Sofia and I had finished loving each other, and in the lightness of the fast approaching sweet sleep, I could hear the raindrops pelting against the slowly illuminating glass windows of the bedroom in which Sofia’s youth had left space for nothing but an intense interest in exploring the intricate boundaries of sinful pleasure. There was a meek, very hesitant knock on the door. A long time passed before the second knock came, equally as meek and hesitant. I got out of bed with a small irritation. I answered the door, walked to the fridge, got the things and went back. When I returned to bed, I was cursing. Later that morning, in the cool yeasty air in the kitchen while we waited for coffee to brew and the loaf of fresh bread to breathe on the acacia chopping board, Sofia asked who it was, and I told her, and she asked what he wanted, and I told her, and she laughed so hard that there were tears in her eyes.
“I am very happy, Baby,” Sofia said. With a loving finger I pushed aside locks of hair that had stuck to her perspired glowing forehead. She had closed her eyes and was smiling gladly because the light that came from the reading lamp was warm and yellow and soft, we were fresh from having made love, there was still some wine left at the bottom of the bottle, and above all, the window was a crack open above the bed.
“That’s good,” I whispered.
“No, Baby, it’s terrible,” she said and giggled unsurely.
Then there was a knock on the door. Behind the door stood the old poet fondling the big white cat that rested on his forearm like a clean folded towel. He was wearing his usual brown newsboy hat, an old yellow t-shirt under an old navy V-neck blue cashmere, his awkward innocence, and a pair of corduroy pants too big for him. His feet were bare and small. His toes were white and clean. He smelt of fried garlic, tomatoes, and oregano, and old books.
“Who was it, Baby?” she asked when I returned to bed.
“What did he want?” she asked with her eyes still closed.
“Did he want eggs again?” she asked and giggled, her voice warm with sleep.
“No,” I said and got under the sheets, and found her feet with mine.
“Baby, what did he want?” she asked sweetly, a little annoyed.
“He wanted us to keep it down. The noise makes his cat anxious,” I answered, slightly mad at the poet’s offending innocence.
From the lightness of that fast place between reality and dreams, pleasantly wrapped in the soft sheets, she laughed loudly, briefly forgetting her happiness. “Did he have his cat with him?” she asked.
“He must have looked adorable.”
I didn’t respond.
“Baby, are you jealous again?”
I remained silent.
“Learn to be content, Mister!” she said and the gladness on her face dimmed as she turned her back to me. “Since the day we met, I have given you my heart and my loyalty. What more can a woman give? And remove your foot from between my feet!”
Then one night, we sat at the table in the kitchen. We opened a bottle of wine, and as we waited for the baby eggplants to cook in the bed of fresh tomato, crashed garlic, and green chili sauce in the oven, she read Hopscotch to me in Spanish. She read section 82, knowing that we had talked about it in length, and that I loved it. She read holding the book in one hand, in her free hand she had the embossed bowl. She stressed certain words. Certain phrases she read twice, calling my attention to it: “Listen to this.” Then, without taking her eyes off the page, she drank her wine and extended the empty bronze toward me for a refill. I poured her more wine while listening to the sound of her voice, to her excitement, to her mastery in a language that I didn’t know. She read effortlessly and quickly as not to disrupt the rhythm and flow of the prose. Then she reread each sentence slowly, almost in an exaggerated tone, breaking them up into their forming elements.
When she was done reading, she said, “The man was a poet with a bit of God in him.” She got up, went into the living room, opened the window, came back and turned the lights off. In the red glow of the hot rods in the oven, she pushed her chair next to mine, placed her head on my shoulder, and held my hand. Her hair smelled like wild lavender and distant oceans, and for once I felt very close to her, the closest I have ever been to happiness. “I can stay like this forever,” she said. That night when we went to bed, she said that she couldn’t fall asleep. All the windows were open, the reading lamp was on, we had finished the bottle of wine, and we had made love. “It was either the eggplants or Cortazar,” she said, “my mind is shying like a wild horse.” I didn’t notice her leaving the bed, but when she came back, it was well past midnight. She got under the sheets, found my feet with hers and hugged me tightly.
She smelled of tears and the old poet.